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Tracking our eco-footprints

Daniel Rainham, environmental science professor at Dalhousie University, looks at the relationship between environment and health using GPS.

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Environmentalism is commonly criticized for replacing an overly human-centred worldview with one that ignores, even alienates, people. The ecological mindset is pie-in-the-sky long-term soothsaying at the expense of our immediate needs, critics say.

Speaking with Daniel Rainham, an environmental science professor at Dalhousie University, it becomes apparent how wrong those critics are.

Rainham is at the forefront of a new field of study. "I'm interested in the relationship between environment and health," he says. But unlike the environmental health that puts the microscope on links between pollutants and illness, Rainham's perspective is broad. Global, even. "I'm looking from the movement of natural capital and its ecological footprint, down to how neighbourhoods are designed and their affects on air quality and our health, to the built environment's contribution to obesity and how people recover from illness more quickly when they're exposed to parks and public gardens."

Too abstract? Rainham is making those connections real with global positioning satellite technology, which he uses to track volunteers as they move around the city. "Using GPS we can look at what areas are more or less likely to be exposed to air pollution and identify relationships between neighbourhood characteristics, mode of transportation and health," he says.

Although his focus is human health, his conclusions are startlingly similar to the sermons given by annoying environmentalists from atop the high seats of their bicycles. Turns out healthy neighbourhoods are those with good soil quality, minimal noise and vehicle traffic, clean air, plentiful sidewalks for walkability, ample green space and playgrounds, trees, quality housing and opportunities for outdoor social gatherings.

"Current forms of planning fail us in the long-run in terms of resource use and health," Rainham says. That's because municipalities are designed, very poorly, around the automobile, giving rise to social isolation, air pollution, noise, traffic fatalities, obesity and water pollution from parking-lot chemical runoff.

He argues that by simply honing in on a specific, comprehensive goal, whether it's human health or creating energy efficient transit, city and neighbourhood planners could create vibrant, fun, healthy, sustainable places with real meaning for their residents. Sharpening our focus, while keeping well-informed on numerous schools of thought, Rainham feels, creates a natural synergy between community, health and environment. "They go hand-in-hand," he says.

Community leaders might start by creating safer open places to congregate. Car-free zones have been shown to build neighbourly conviviality. Rainham cites a recent UK study in which residents were asked to draw lines on a map from home to all the neighbours they knew. On a high traffic street, there might be a line or two. On a pedestrian street, the residents turned the map into a spider's web. We saw a local example on Halifax's Black Street last year, when residents threw a car-free block party and rocked the night, building on a sense of neighbourliness and community. Black Street remains one of the tightest-knit communities in Halifax.

Once the cars have been put aside, there is more room for humans and all those non-human entities treehuggers are always pining for: like trees. Rainham recalls playing as a child in huge development-free buffer zones around waterways in Waterloo. The green spaces they provided allowed children a network of play-space, corridors through which they could travel without encountering cars.

Green spaces are a nice example of Rainham's theory that, when it comes to health, what is good for kids is good for adults too. Since becoming a parent himself, he's had to slow down and more fully interact with the places he inhabits. "I require more places to sit down, or to find a washroom," he says. At that slower speed, one realizes just how much our city is designed for cars and one asks questions like, "Can a child or an elderly person make it across six lanes of traffic? No."

Most parents, when they aren't pondering such things, seek homes that will give their pride and joy safe opportunities to gather with other kids, run around, go on little adventures. Open spaces and trees are great for this: so are relatively dense communities with a neighbourhood feel where, because people know each other, violent crime becomes unthinkable.

Rainham points to the areas around Agricola and Gottingen as examples of blossoming healthy neighbourhoods, human in scale with indoor and outdoor gathering places and well-integrated with the natural habitat. These have grown recently with little or no support from city planners, who are too busy with regional exercises in document production, showing us something else the environmentalists were right about: Good things tend to grow from the ground up.

What's the best walking neighbourhood in Halifax? Let Chris Benjamin know at chrisb@thecoast.ca.

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